Pakistan Reader# 275, 19 January 2022
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Pakistan and Russia: Talk time with Putin
On 17 January, Prime Minister Imran Khan in a telephonic conversation with President Vladimir Putin appreciated him for his “emphatic” statement on being sensitive to the Muslim sentiment. He said: “(Putin) is the first Western leader to show empathy and sensitivity to Muslim sentiment for their beloved Prophet (PBUH).” Further, Imran also stated: “We also discussed ways to move forward on trade and other mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries. We invited each other to visit our countries.”
Further, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read: “The prime minister underscored that Pakistan’s bilateral relationship with Russia was on an upward trajectory with an increased focus on trade, economic ties and energy cooperation. He reiterated the government’s resolve for the early realisation of the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline Project…The prime minister underscored that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan was pivotal for regional stability. Afghanistan was facing dire humanitarian and economic challenges, and the support of the international community to the people of Afghanistan at this critical juncture remained vitally important, he stressed.”
The above was the second call between the two leaders in four months. Following the phone call, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated that Pakistan and Russia relations were on a positive trajectory, adding that the phone call “indicates that the two countries are moving ahead at regional and global levels with identical approaches.”
Pakistan and the US: No range for Biden’s call
Conversely, PM Imran Khan has expressed his disappointment over President Joe Biden’s reluctance to talk to him. In September 2020, he said, “He is a busy man,” adding that President Biden should be asked, “why he is too busy to call.” Later on the absence of a phone call, he said, “I keep hearing that President Biden hasn't called me. It's his business. It's not like I am waiting for any phone call.”
The same disappointment was signalled by National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf. He said: “The President of the United States hasn’t spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make-or-break in some cases, in some ways, in Afghanistan — we struggle to understand the signal, right?...We’ve been told every time that… [the phone call] will happen, it’s technical reasons or whatever. But frankly, people don’t believe it.” He also said: “If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options.”
Interpreting the calls and lack of them
In the recent past, Pak-Russia relations have witnessed proactive engagement at all levels. There have been telephonic conversations from heads of state, ministerial visits to security advisor meetings to military exercises. This highlights efforts between the two to build a strategic relationship between Moscow and Islamabad in multiple domains.
The above recent warming comes at a time when the region has witnessed several geopolitical changes. However, the closeness seems to be mutually benefitting for both sides, with the main point of convergence being Afghanistan. Given Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and Russia’s interest in playing a larger role, the engagement is expected. Additionally, the relations between the two span over different areas, thus, while Pakistan seeks to tap into Russian military equipment, technology and other commercial incentives, Russia can use Pakistan to in linking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) to fulfil its vision of the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). Thus, Russia and Pakistan have a lot to gain from having a proactive relationship.
Conversely, the same is not the case with the US. Pakistan and the US have shared capricious relation, however, the latter has always maintained ties with Pakistan. Over the last two decades, the American policy toward Pakistan has been based on its goals in Afghanistan. Post US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the two are entering into a new phase. However, the Biden administration’s policy towards Pakistan remains unclear.
While the Trump administration maintained a transactional approach to Pakistan, Biden administration’s approach to Pakistan is unclear. Additionally, the rocky start to the relations with the Biden administration denouncing the Supreme Court acquitting Omar Saeed Sheikh, terming it an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan,” and their downplaying of Pakistan’s efforts in Afghanistan has come to portray Biden’s uninterest. On the other hand, Pakistan has made itself clear, which is that it seeks a more broad-based relationship with the US, one that goes beyond the ambit of Afghanistan. FM Qureshi, on this question, said: “[Americans] have to understand that our relationship with China is not a zero-sum game for them. They should come, compete and invest.” However, the Bident administration is likely to continue to engage with Pakistan through its neighbours or other prisms than directly.
To conclude, Pakistan may seem to be moving towards Russia, it is unlikely that Islamabad will choose a side. It would not be in Pakistan’s interest; the NSA Yusuf clearly stated: “We want the US, Europe and Russia and other countries to come and invest in Pakistan.” Thus, phone call or not, Pakistan would continue to engage with Russia and patiently wait for the US to pick up the call.
“Pak-Russia relations on positive trajectory: FM Qureshi,” The Express Tribune, 18 January 2022
Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Pakistan keen to work on gas project, PM Imran assures Putin,” Dawn, 18 January 2022
“In telephone call, PM Imran thanks Putin for 'emphatic' statement against insulting Holy Prophet (PBUH),” Dawn, 17 January 2022
“We’re not part of camp politics: NSA ,” The Express Tribune, 10 January 2022
“Pakistan’s Role in Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership,” Russian International Affairs Council, 3 June 2020
“Under Biden, Pakistan and the US face a dilemma about the breadth of their relationship,” Brookings, 12 April 2021
“The U.S. Needs a Reset With Pakistan,” The New York Times, 25 December 2021
“Since January 2021: Why the US President has not called Pakistan’s Prime Minister so far?,” Pakistan Reader, 19 October 2021